Boston. -- There is no doubt that "Sex" can be an educational experience.
It was for Madonna. At the very end of the Mylar-covered, spiral-bound, X-rated picture book of the author and her buddies in the buff, Madonna thanks her editor for "teaching me how to spell."
It's not clear exactly which words she couldn't spell before she started writing the text for this unfamily album. Masochism? Pornography? Or is it possible that she couldn't spell the very same words that I cannot print?
Well, whatever. At least she can now pass her junior high school equivalency test in Smut.
"Sex" is also an educational experience for readers. I learned, for example, how to sneak a dirty book through a packed newsroom to my office. Stash it carefully but casually in the fold of the newspaper -- tabloids won't do -- and walk straight ahead.
There are, as well, these nifty nuggets of wisdom from Madonna or her narrator Dita that go right to the greeting-card center of human relationships: "Sex is not love. Love is not sex." Who could have done without that?
Then there is the advice for the lovelorn: "It's always good to play hard to get. Good perfume is really important too. . . . Sucking on your fingers doesn't hurt, like in the middle of dinner." It keeps the napkin clean.
And finally for graduate students in women's studies there is a hint of sexual politics: "Generally, I don't think pornography degrades women. The women who are doing it want to do it. No one is holding a gun to their head."
This last lesson might sound a touch self-serving, although it is hard to distinguish one serving of self from another in this ghastly mound. In fairness, Madonna does not have a gun held at her head in this book, though she does have a knife held at her throat and assorted body cavities.
But even the word-freaks among us cannot fail to notice that the book is not being marketed for its literary efforts. It's being bought for the porn pix, photographs that make you long for those wonderful, romantic yesteryears when Robert Mapplethorpe was focusing on bullwhips. As one young student who waited in a London line for four hours for "Sex" said with true British understatement, "It is rather raw."
Raw indeed. S and M and nipple rings. Boys and girls and a dog thrown in for good measure. The images are bleak, ugly, glum, and deliberately offensive. There is no joy in this sex.
As such, this illiterary event of the year, the release of some 800,000 copies of Maddonography would hardly be worth noting except for the financial fantasies it fills. The only sexual fetish Madonna doesn't expose here is her spread sheet.
But in case you haven't noticed, the superstar remains an idol of rebellious womanhood for millions of adolescent girls. She remains, as well, the love-object of a small industry of deconstructed academics and cultural critics.
The pro-Madonna argument among the adults is twofold. They argue that Madonna is in utter, complete, even compulsive control. As the CEO of Madonna, Inc., she is a powerful woman and therefore a good and strong role model of success.
They argue as well that Madonna's in-your-face, nervy and aggressive sexuality makes her a much-needed bad girl image for adolescent females overdosing on the demands of niceness. She's the material-girl James Dean of the '90s.
But being free to be a sexual exhibitionist is about as wonderful as being liberated to embrace schizophrenia. It just doesn't make for a mental-health poster child. The "sex" in this album is so cold, so impersonal and unemotional, that it gives another meaning to the "hard" in "hard core."
As for Madonna as capitalist, well, just because you're in charge, just because you choose to undress for success, you don't win an automatic slot as a fine feminist mentor. I don't buy the argument that a prostitute who is self-employed is just another small-business woman -- a role model of entrepreneurship -- or that a female producer makes pornography politically correct.
At 34, Madonna may still be escaping from a lousy childhood. But if this is the shining path for the next generation, we better start making a lot of detour signs.
As for art? I'm reminded of the moment in "Truth or Dare" when Madonna's dad tentatively asked her whether she could cool the masturbation number. Madonna blurted in banal outrage, "I have to protect my artistic integrity!"
Artistic integrity? I'll believe it when she can spell it.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.